Saturday, December 31, 2016

Best Books of 2016

2016 was a great year for reading.  Most of my non-fiction selections were excellent and well worth my time but more encouraging and exciting were the fiction books I read in 2016.  Although my selection for my favorite fiction book was mostly undisputed in my mind, that did not mean there wasn't a wonderful selection of fiction I read this year.  In too many years past I have struggled to find works of fiction which inspire and enlighten.  Happily, 2016 was not one of those years.  Therefore, since this year was such a wonderful year for my fiction reading, I'll start with my favorite fiction book of 2016.

Fiction: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I read Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop early in the year.  It's sometimes easy to forget about books which you read earlier in the year because so much can come after it, not just in terms of reading but also in terms of life.  Death Comes for the Archbishop has stuck with me from the moment I turned the last page.  Its evocative setting, its endearing characters, its hopeful message—it all stuck with me and continued to affect my thinking.  Even though I read several great works of fiction this year, there was never any doubt that Death Comes for the Archbishop would be my favorite this year.

I found Death Comes for the Archbishop deeply personal.  Its a story about believing souls trying to change the world, slowly but ever so surely.  At one point Cather writes "...it was no easy matter for two missionaries on horseback to keep up with the march of history."  What a powerful statement!  Having served as a religious missionary it's difficult for me to articulate how much that statement moves me.  Furthermore, the myriad of simple but incredible insights from the book, such as "[m]an was lost and saved in a garden," elevate its prose from mere plot plodding to literary lessons indelibly impressed upon me.  Death Comes for the Archbishop isn't exactly a well-known masterpiece of literature; yet, for me, it's exactly that—a masterpiece.

Non-fiction: The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman

Neal A. Maxwell is no slouch when it comes to selecting the "best books" (D&C 88:118) and I always pay attention to any author, article, or book Maxwell quotes from.  The March of Folly is a book I more than likely never would have found except by listening to and paying close attention to a talk by Maxwell.  And I'm so glad I found it.

The March of Folly is a dense book—detailed and challenging.  Although many non-fiction books attempt to document several events or chronicle a personality's life, Tuchman's book is an exploration of a historical theory; to wit, that governments and leaders often act against their own self-interest and engage in demonstrably poor policy decisions which eventually leads to their losing power and influence.  The book explores the mythical story of Troy—which I loved because I believe myth and story can teach us a great deal—the American Revolution from the perspective of the British, the Popes shortly before the Reformation, and the Vietnam War.  In all cases, I was enthralled by Tuchman's commentaries and insights.  Whereas a book like The Lessons of History by the Durants attempts to look at history at 50,000 feet, The March of Folly looks at history under a microscope.  Both are valuable, of course, and The March of Folly is a truly effective microscope.

Like most years, I read a lot of very good non-fiction books in 2016, but the one that really stuck with me and continues to actively influence my thinking was The March of Folly.  It should not be overlooked.

Other Topics of Interest:
Best Books of 2015
Best Books of 2014
Thousander Must-Reads

Monday, December 12, 2016

Reading Goals for 2016: A Review

2016 was a great year of reading—both for non-fiction and fiction. Too often fiction lags behind in quality year over year, but that was absolutely not the case in 2016. When I look at the non-fiction and fiction books I read this past year, it is an excellent lineup of excellent writing.

Starting with fiction, I finally got around to completing The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I read The Fellowship of the Ring in 2015 and liked it fine, but it wasn't until I read The Two Towers that I finally saw and felt the vision of those books. In fact, after reading The Two Towers, I read a non-fiction book—as is my pattern—and then immediately went back to Tolkien to read The Return of the King. I rarely read books in a series back to back. I usually like to take a breath and a break from a series so when I return to the series it can feel fresh. I didn't need any break between The Two Towers and The Return of the King. Furthermore, I had a few wonderful surprises in my fiction reading this year as well. World War Z was far better than it probably should have been being a book about zombies. Also, Good Omens was funny and entertaining, and a great diversion away from some of the more cerebral books I'm prone to read. The Once and Future King was another epic book that shocked me, surprised me, entertained me, and moved me. It should not be missed. Finally, though, I can't help but mention what will more than likely be my favorite fiction book I read in 2016—Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. It is a truly lovely book—genuinely emotional, personal, and, for me, unforgettable.

And what of non-fiction? As with most years, I read an incredible assortment of non-fiction books this year.  The first which comes to mind is probably The March of Folly.  It was a detailed and challenging work of historical commentary that I have returned to on many occasions over the last year for insight.  Although not the best of biographies, Bonhoeffer was a book about a heroic man during a terrifying time.  It reminded me that even when evil appears to be taking hold and madness is taking over there are always good men and women doing what they can to push back against it.  I finally got around to reading The Tragedy of American Compassion, which has been on my reading list literally for years.  I have to mention as well Daniel Kahneman's fascinating book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Although it became a bit of a slog and a little distended by the end, the book compels the reader to re-evaluate their ability to think clearly and objectively.  It reinforced my skepticism but also gave me more reasons to be humble, and that's a good thing.

A big development for my reading habits this year was a new commitment to read more business and management oriented books.  I have started to write blog posts and articles related to the professional world, and I, therefore, committed myself to dive deeper into that world by reading what others have to say about it.  Some were decent, such as The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  Others not so much, such as The One Minute Manager.  I admit I struggle to find books of interest in the professional world, but I know they're out there, and I think I can become a more capable and well-rounded professional by learning from others who have more knowledge and experience than myself.  In addition, this new commitment will lead me to some unexpected but fascinating books like The Marshmallow Test.  I look forward to continuing this new area of learning.

2016 was a really good year for my reading.  Not everything impressed me, but the good and great books far outnumbered the mediocre and lousy books.  2017 is looking like a great year as well, and I look forward to reaching 400 books (I'm so, so close!), and moving ever closer to 500, 750, and 1,000.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reading Goals for 2015: A Review
Thousander Guidelines
Thousander Must-Reads

Monday, December 5, 2016

Reflections: Earth Unaware

I now have read twelve books in the Ender Universe.  And, sadly, I think I'm done reading books in that universe.  The last book I read from Scott Card was Ender in Exile, and I largely left off reading that book with a positive feeling.  I wrote in part: "With so many books and so many authors in the wild to enjoy, I'm not exactly sure why I keep coming back to the Ender well.  Regardless of whether I figure it out or not, I'll be back to take another drink and more than likely enjoy the taste just fine."  Yet, going into Earth Unaware my mood and feeling changed.  I realized that with so many books to read and so many authors to enjoy, it may be time to leave behind characters I have come to love.

The most interesting aspect of Earth Unaware is the new cast of characters.  As I have read about Ender and the characters that surround him, such as his family, I have come to know them in an intimate way, even personal.  Furthermore, with Scott Card's signature psycho-analysis, the reader came to know the characters at a very deep, albeit sometimes trite, way.  Earth Unaware only tries to bridge the current story with the future story by briefly introducing but just as quickly leaving behind the war hero Mazer Rackham.  I was fine with the introduction but also the quick departure from him.  We have learned enough about the characters from the original Ender stories.  It was time for new blood, new motivations, and new conflicts.  The new characters are adequate but mostly forgettable.  Furthermore, the story that surrounds them is also forgettable; therefore, as you can imagine, a forgettable story and forgettable characters makes for a forgettable book.

Prequels often seem like a good idea on paper; yet, they quickly become bad ideas in their execution.  Ender's Game is rightfully considered a classic of science fiction.  Logic would suggest that the story that led to Ender's Game would be just as interesting.  In this case, as in the case with many other prequels, it's just not true.  Sometimes there is great value in mystery.  When it comes to fiction, we don't have to know everything.  In Ender's Game the characters, including Andrew Wiggin, and the reader are given only glimpses into the First Formic War.  Wouldn't it be fascinating to get the detailed story?  Not really.  Storytellers should remember the lesson of the Star Wars prequels.  Do we really want to know how Darth Vader became Darth Vader?  It seems like a no-brainer, but the end result is pretty lousy. 

It's entirely possible I'll end up reading some more books in the Enderverse.  It won't be for some time.  I have no desire to continue the Earth trilogy nor the Shadow series; therefore, I don't really have too many places to go.  Yet, with twelve books in my collection, I would say I put in my time as a faithful fan.  At this point, I think I'm okay with remembering the great stories Scott Card gave me and forgetting the mediocre ones.  Earth Unaware is the latter.

Other Topics of Interest:
Memorable Moments: Ender's Game - Terribly Reality
Reflections: Ender in Exile
Reflections: The Forever War